This often-painful film features two of the most watchable people in cinema today: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Gosling, of course, has visited similar material before, and Blue Valentine is easily located at the intersection of romance film and indie-handheld-camera-Kmart-realism. Here, his performance as Dean is an ingenious cross between the blue-collar weirdo from Lars and the Real Girl and the hunky Noah from The Notebook (also proudly working-class). And he somehow manages to be compelling, even when he’s wallowing in his own intransigence. (And he wallows deeply here.) Williams is both glamorous and pathetic as Cindy, though much of her intelligence as a performer rests on deflecting gestures; her hands keep pushing air away from her, though her real daring emerges in scenes so physically revealing they make you gasp. Besides the score, though — composed and compiled by Brooklyn indie geniuses Grizzly Bear — these two compelling young stars are really the only reason to follow this drawn-out journey down.
The story begins with a child calling for a dog that you already know will not return, is punctuated by sex that feels automatically like unplanned pregnancy, and lock steps to a sure trajectory toward fizzled love. Disappointment is guaranteed, though momentarily alleviated by sudden memory memes as the camera bursts from blue tones into full-colored vistas, remembering when Dean and Cindy first meet. The editing is sometimes poetic, as the couple’s stories interweave, but you feel like someone is trying too hard to reach that younger audience that still considers Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind the pinnacle of hipster filmmaking. Compared to this movie, it is.
But Blue Valentine isn’t terrible, and for people who love the kind of endless tragic nattering found in Cassavetes films like Husbands, this might actually become their best time at the cinema this year. But it made me cringe too often. “What should I do? What should I be? What do you want me to do?” howls Gosling, pounding his head on a kitchen wall. And all I could think was, “End this scene.”